24th Mar 2018

Juncker calls for united EU under one leader

  • Juncker wants a single EU president who campaigns in the 2019 elections (Photo: European Commission)

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker outlined his post-Brexit vision for a confident EU in his state of the union address on Wednesday (14 September), speaking of a Europe that has bounced back from the economic downturn and regained the political ground from populists and eurosceptics.

Juncker, in his second to last state of the union speech, has argued for a more united and effective EU that is based on freedom, equality and the rule of law, and signalled that he wants all EU countries to become full eurozone and Schengen area members by 2019 - except those with opt-outs.

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  • MEPs listen to Juncker's state of the union address in Strasbourg (Photo: European Commission)

He described a post-Brexit EU with all member states part of the banking union, where there are funds to protect the euro, reinforced social standards, and a defence union. He also wants to see the EU take on a stronger role internationally.

In a personal tone, Juncker told MEPs in Strasbourg that the "wind is back in Europe's sails", but warned that the "window of opportunity" for reforms and winning the hearts and minds of citizens will not stay open forever.

"We have been slowly but surely gathering momentum," said Juncker in his speech, while playing down the issue of Brexit - only specifically mentioning it an hour into his address.

He proposed a special EU summit in Sibiu, Romania, on 30 March 2019 - one day after the UK leaves the bloc - to take decisions on the reformed EU.

One captain

One of his other key ideas is to merge the presidencies of the European Commission and the European Council into a single position, in order to have one clear leader of the EU.

"Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship," he argued.

In Juncker's vision, the presidential candidate should be allowed to campaign in the European elections, but he fell short of backing transnational lists of MEPs.

Juncker advocated for deepening the integration of the euro area, and called on non-euro member states to join the single currency by 2019.

He argued for a European minister of economy and finance but said it should not be a new position, instead only a reinforced EU commissioner post.

The commission president, however, did not support the idea of a euro area budget and eurozone-parliament.

Global player

Juncker also advocated for a Europe that is more active on the global stage, in trade and foreign policy.

He said the bloc should start free trade negotiations with Australia and New Zealand and close the deals by the end of his term.

The commission president also seeks to give the EU new powers on screening foreign investments in strategic European sectors, an idea put forward by French president Emmanuel Macron at the last EU summit.

Juncker said foreign policy decisions should not be taken by unanimity, but instead by qualified majority voting, to make decision-making quicker. He also foresees a "fully-fledged" defence union by 2025.

He said it was "high time" Romania and Bulgaria joined the passport-free Schengen area, ten years after the countries joined the EU, and that Croatia should also become a member once it meets all the criteria.

Juncker said the EU should give credible enlargement possibilities to Western Balkan countries to maintain stability in the region. Although he said enlargement is not possible under his mandate, he argued that the accession process must continue.

But Turkey will have to wait.

"Accession candidates must give the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights utmost priority. This rules out EU membership for Turkey for the foreseeable future," he said.

Reaching out east

The commission chief also reached out to central and eastern European member states amid concerns that differences on migration, rules for posted workers and democratic worries in Hungary and Poland are renewing an east-west divide within the bloc.

"East to west: Europe must breathe with both lungs. Otherwise our continent will struggle for air," Juncker said, even though the president rarely visits eastern member states.

Without specifically mentioning Hungary and Poland, Juncker warned the two countries to respect the rule of law, and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Recently, Poland has defied ECJ rulings on logging in the primeval Bialowieza forest, and Hungary has reneged on EU migration quotas.

"The judgements of the court have to be respected by all. To undermine them, or to undermine the independence of national courts, is to strip citizens of their fundamental rights," Juncker argued.

"The rule of law is not optional in the European Union. It is a must," he added.

Juncker stood firm on the issue of posted workers, where the commission proposed equal pay for all - something that could threaten eastern European workers in western member states.

However, the commission president said he will not accept lower quality food being sold in eastern Europe.

"Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers," he insisted, in what has become a politically sensitive issue, with deep-seated fears in central and eastern Europe that they are being treated like second class citizens in the EU.

Juncker completely left Russia out of his speech, a country whose government has often been accused of interfering in elections around Europe.


From Bratislava to Rome: Little more than a show of unity

The so-called Bratislava process of reflection for the EU came to an end on Saturday, but there were few tangible results that citizens could take away from the soul-searching. Despite that, unity among the EU-27 has been maintained.

Rome summit tries to restart EU momentum

EU 27 leaders in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of Treaty of Rome, in bid to counter rising challenges after Brexit. But new ideas are scarce.

Poland: Multi-speed EU could 'break apart'

Poland has warned that French idea of multi-speed Europe could "break apart" the EU, as Warsaw heads for confrontation with Brussels on rule of law.

Visual Data

The Commission president in his own words

What do the most recurrent words in the Commission president's annual speech at the European Parliament say about our times? We had a closer look at the patterns.


Juncker rules out exclusive eurozone

The EU Commission president said that he wants "a stronger Economic and Monetary Union" but ruled out any ideas that could create a separate group within the EU.


The populists may have won, but Italy won't leave the euro

The situation as Rome tries to form a government is turbulent and unpredictable. However, the most extreme eurosceptic policies floated during the election campaign are unlikely to happen - not least due to the precarious state of the Italian banks.


Why has central Europe turned so eurosceptic?

Faced with poorer infrastructure, dual food standards and what can seem like hectoring from western Europe it is not surprising some central and eastern European member states are rebelling.

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